I thought my first post after my trip to Belgium last week would be about my walks around the battlefields of Ypres, but my mind is so full of the experience of seeing R.C. Sherriff’s play Journey’s End, performed in an Ammunition Dump in that Belgium city, that I want to talk about that instead.
This particular run of the play finishes on November 12th, so I urge anyone in that area or anyone who can reach it easily, to book quickly to see the play (details below).
Journey’s End is the only drama about the First World War written by a playwright who actually fought in the war.
Exactly one hundred years ago, Sherriff fought at Passchendaele in the 3rd Battle of Ypres and approximately 90 years since the play was first staged in London (with Laurence Olivier in the lead) it is being staged by the UK based MESH Theatre Co. in an old restored ammunition dump with 3-metre thick walls made to resemble the dugout in which the play is set, in Ypres, the town that was razed to the ground and re-built.
The action takes place over 4 days prior to the disastrous battle of St. Quentin and deals with the physical and mental ordeals of trench warfare experienced by a group of British officers during the run-up to the battle, the changes wrought by the war on one officer in particular (an alcoholic at just 21 years old, a causal effect of the war) and the effects of shell-shock on another. Only a few forward-looking medics took much notice at that time of what we would now call PTSD but which then was often considered cowardice, or if you were lucky, shell shock (after being named such in 1915).
The ‘Theatre’ is accessed through a couple of hessian sacks serving as a doorway to the dug-out, the setting is atmospheric, lighting restricted to a few candles and two or three oil-lamps which barely illuminate the smokey trench. Seating is limited to about 80 seats which surround a centre space on which the action takes place, the acting is powerful and emotional and being immersed in the atmosphere of the trench makes for a very moving experience.
The current run extends to November 12th with tickets at €15. Matinees 3.00 Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays with evening performances at 7 p.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, the performance running just over 2 hours.
If you don’t manage to see it this year, make a note in your diary that the company will be performing it again in 2018, the centenary of the end of the Great War, at Thiepval, France from 18th September – 8th October and at Ypres, Belgium from 10th October to 12th November.
My one and only balloon trip was over the vineyards of Rioja and the town of Lograno in Northern Spain. It was both exhilarating and exciting but I’m not sure I would do it again! It was dark when we got to the spot and dawn was just breaking when we took off – it was magical, wonderful, and a time I shall always remember.
Here are a few photographs of the Ascent.
I apologise to the readers, I cannot get rid of the white space between two of the photographs. I shall have to work on this and try and re-edit.
It’s scary when the flame goes Whoosh (Is she praying, by the way?)
In Sweden last week, and despite the -4 degrees, I had one of the best walks I’d had in Gothenburg for many years. I’ve always loved the city but on earlier visits to family, we’ve stuck to the areas I know and enjoy.
My first visit is always to the Feskekorke – quite literally translated as “fish church” – where fishmongers have been hawking their freshest wares since 1847 and where the shop in the basement and the restaurant up top can satisfy both the inner and outer gourmand. Sweden’s fish, in its quality, is the best in the world in my opinion.
Then there’s the Avenyn, the wide Boulevard that runs from the centre of town up to the Konstmuseet, where one can see works by Van Gogh, Picasso and Rembrandt, and some truly delightful 19th-century Nordic art, including the beautiful, evocative paintings of Carl Larsson. The old part of town is known as The Haga, well worth a visit to browse the chic boutiques in the narrow streets full of old Swedish charm, and to people watch from the cafés that serve everything from vegan to high-end Scandinavian food. Many of these are housed in pretty 19th-century wooden dwellings that not long ago were slated for demolition.
Skansen Kronan, on Risåsberget Hill in the Haga district.
I never seemed to get beyond these places, partly because of the numerous coffee shops selling cinnamon buns that I found it difficult to resist. In Gothenburg, independent coffee shops are the rule: ask for a Starbucks and you’ll be directed to the train station where you’ll find the only branch of the chain in the city. Coffee comes strong and black but there us always milk on the side. In many places, a second cup comes free.
This time in Gothenburg, however, we went somewhere quite different.
The Gothia River, which cuts through the city, was home to the massive Swedish shipbuilding industry between the mid-19th century and its demise in the 1970s, much like the shipbuilding industry in Scotland and Belfast.
At its peak, 15,200 employees worked in the industry; Gothenburg was known as a shipbuilding town and Sweden was a world-leading shipbuilding nation.
In recent years, however, the wharves, factories and large tracts of derelict land have been undergoing a slow and painstaking transformation. The area of Lindholmen is now one of the most dynamic places in Gothenburg, a hub of entrepreneurial skills, universities, colleges, and a business hub to encourage business and academia to work together. Cranes and overhead gantries are silhouetted against the sky, ferries bustle across the water carrying workers and residents of the new elegant apartments lining the embankment to and from the new ‘town’.
Lindholmen has moved on and has morphed from a lively shipbuilding area into a flourishing residential town, businesses have relocated here and former industrial buildings have become sports halls, gymnasiums, and chic cafes and restaurants. The well-laid out streets and paths along the waterside, the canals that run through the ‘town’ and the sense of a young, innovative spirit is palpable.
There are many ways of getting to Lindholmen, bus, tram, cycling or by the free ferries which runs every 8 minutes between Stenpiren and Lindholmspiren, weekdays between the hours of 07:00 to 18:00. The ride only takes 5 minutes.
As we had walked from the train station in town we took the ferry and walked around the area, admiring the elegant apartments with balconies that overlooked the harbour, the colourful buildings and the ducks that waddled up to us when it looked as though we might stop and feed them. It was a delightful walk in an area I’d never visited before, but it’s now on my list for further exploration and a return visit to the Turkish restaurant which served one of the best pastas I’ve had in years.
How’s that for Internationalism!
A few tips:
Invest in a Göteborg City Card. It may seem pricey at £28 for 24 hours, but this gives you free or reduced entry to most museums and attractions, free travel on public transport including the Gothia River ferry taxis, as well as some city tours.
Do have a ride on Electric bus route 55: Gothenburg’s first route for electric buses runs between Lindholmen Science Park and Johanneberg Science Park via Avenyn, Brunnsparken and Götaälvbron. The buses are silent and emission-free and run on electricity from wind power and hydropower. The bus route is among the most modern in the world. Among other things, passengers can recharge their phones onboard and enter and exit the bus from indoors. Ordinary Västtrafik tickets are used to ride the bus.
Beware of cyclists – like many Scandinavian countries, the bicycle is king in Gothenburg. Don’t walk on the cycle tracks (the trails are well posted on the pavements) and keep a particular eye out for them on the pavements of the wider streets.
I’d done my research and I knew about the 17 UNESCO Heritage sites in Kyoto, the 1,500 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines, the ancient traditions that still inform the daily lives of the people, the tea ceremony, the flower arranging, and of course, the geishas, that in Kyoto showcase the heart and soul of traditional Japan. All of that I saw and wondered at, but nothing prepared me for the beauty of the green bamboo glade through which we walked on our second day in the city, the tranquillity, the sighing of the leaves and the faint sounds of birds hidden in the branches.
If you’ve seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon you will have gained some idea of what this place is about: I found it totally magical. Higashiyama is the main tourist area with the best shopping, the major artisan shops and the top heritage temples and shrines to visit, but because of this, it is mostly bustling and busy. So a short bus ride to Western Kyoto to Arashiyama to experience the wonder of this bamboo forest is the perfect antidote to the crowds.
Infinite stalks of thick, green, bamboo stretch endlessly ahead, a forest of trees unlike any other forest you will see. There is a sense of otherworldliness in the place and a strange quality to the light which is impossible to capture in photographs.
Everyone I spoke to was disappointed with the images they produced from their cameras, but it’s just impossible to capture something so intangible.
Japan has many natural beauties, the cherry blossom in spring, the dazzling palette of red and gold leaves in the autumn, and the scenic splendour of the snow-covered Japanese Alps, but the Bamboo Forest in Kyoto, the old capital of Japan, a city that moves to an entirely different rhythm from the rest of Japan, is my choice for top attraction in that land of much beauty.
I didn’t imagine it would be so difficult to write about my walk on the Ypres Salient in Belgium, as I followed the course of the World War l battle of 1917 but it’s impossible to write about the horrors of the 3rd Battle of Ypres (also known as Passchendaele) without including great chunks of history to explain just why we were walking there, and a blog is no place for a history essay. That being the case, I have to forget my idea of doing a Monday walk for Jo and just add a few photos with connecting text. A few historical notes will be appended at the end of the blog for those who want to read them.
First though, a few details.
During the course of the war, Ypres was all but obliterated by artillery fire. At the end of what we now call The Great War, it lay in ruins, only a handful of buildings were left standing. First-time visitors to Ypres find it hard to believe that this magnificent town with its enormous square surrounded by medieval and Renaissance buildings was completely flattened by 1918. Virtually the whole of the town you see today was reconstructed from scratch, stone by stone, brick by brick during the 1920’s and 1930’s. Rubble that could be incorporated into the buildings was collected, cleaned and re-used and the planners, by referring to the medieval sketches and diagrams that had survived, were able to painstakingly rebuild the squares, streets and beautiful buildings of this ancient Flemish town.
Throughout the town, you will see bronze plaques bearing the outline of the Cloth Hall, the Cathedral and the Menin Gate at street corners. These are the signposts for the 5.5km provincial Heritage Footpath, the most complete footpath in the Ypres inner city.
Ypres had been fortified since about the 10th century and the Ypres ramparts are the best preserved in the country. The town originated on the banks of the Ieperlee and some ten centuries ago it was contained within little more than an earth wall and some moats, parts of which, dating from 1385, still survive. Later, stone walls and towers were added and later still, under occupation by the Habsburgs and then the French in the 17th and 18th centuries, the walls were strengthened, and bastions, advanced redoubts and more moats were added. The Lille Gate is the only city gate left out of the many that existed in the past.
The Ypres Ramparts are wide and strolling them in autumn is delightful as the falling leaves cushion the feet of the walker. The signposted route is 2.6 km long and meanders past lakes and ponds (the remains of the moat), interesting statuary, and through the Lille Gate into a small W.W.l military cemetery filled with the upright white headstones erected by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, so familiar to visitors to France and Belgium. The municipal museum is located not far from the gate. Along the route, 23 panels provide information on the various points of Vauban’s ramparts.
There are 198 soldiers buried here, among them the graves of six New Zealand troops who were killed simultaneously by the same shell: their graves are now symbolically grouped together.
There follows some photographs I took on this walk which ended at the back of the Menin Gate, in some ways more beautiful than the gate whose picture we are familiar with at which buglers from the local Fire Brigade play the Last Post every night at 8 p.m. This custom has continued since 1928 when it was first inaugurated, save for 4 years during World War ll when the German occupation prevented it. This year being an Anniversary Year it attracts a few hundred people every night but sometimes there are just a few onlookers, yet the volunteer buglers nightly continue their tribute to the fallen.
A. Engraved on The Menin Gate Memorial are the names of over 54,000 officers and men of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth Forces who died in the Ypres Salient before 16th August 1917 and who have no known grave. Tyne Cot has 35,000 names and there are 75,000 engraved on the Thiepval Memorial.
B.Menin Gate Last Post: At 7.30pm the police arrive and all traffic is stopped from driving through the Menin Gate until 8.30pm. For one hour the noise of traffic ceases. A stillness descends and the crowd is hushed.
7.55pm: Buglers of the local volunteer Fire Brigade arrive and stand ready at the eastern entrance of the Menin Gate Memorial. They then step into the roadway under the Memorial arch facing towards the town. The Last Post is played.
C. Of the battles, the largest and most costly in terms of human suffering was the Third Battle of Ypres (31 July to 6 November 1917, also known as the Battle of Passchendaele), in which the British, Canadian, ANZAC, and French forces recaptured the Passchendaele Ridge east of the city at a terrible cost of lives. It had been a battle across muddy, swampy fields taken and lost, then lost and taken again. After months of fighting only a few miles of ground had been won by the Allied forces at a cost of nearly half a million casualties on all sides.
D. The defence of Ypres was essential for the Allied forces as the town was a strategic point blocking the route of the Imperial German Army to the Belgian and French coastal ports (the ‘race to the sea’). Thousands of Allied troops died in the rubble of its buildings, the shattered farmland around it and the fields and meadows that had been deliberately flooded by the Belgian King to try and prevent the enemy from gaining a foothold. Both sides fought ferocious battles and lived in inhuman conditions to maintain possession. On the German side, thousands of lives were lost on the battlefields around Ypres during their four years of offensive and defensive battles.
A misty morning on the pedestrianised bridge over the Lake of the Restored Sword in Hanoi, Vietnam.
They assured me I could walk in safety here but I chickened out when I saw the railway line running down the middle of the street. Unfortunately, it also started me humming The Railroad Runs Through the Middle of the House, which my grandfather used to sing, and it stayed with me for days.
One of the prettiest towns on Lake Orta, it charms with its pebble-studded lanes and stepped alleys branching off from Piazza Motta, the long narrow street behind the lakeshore with its wonderful selection of traditional food shops. Rising high above it is the Monte Sacro (Sacred Mountain), a destination for pilgrims who come to pray at the many chapels on the hill.
Sitting facing the waters of the lake, shaded by chestnut trees and serenaded by the birds, I drank in the panoramic view of the tiny, but beautiful, Island of San Giulio which sits in the middle of the lake (which I had visited the previous day) and wondered if this perhaps, wasn’t the most beautiful spot along the lakes.
The town is a typical Italian town, narrow streets lined with ochre-coloured houses from which jutted wrought-iron balconies hung with geraniums and ferns. The buildings date mainly from the 17th and 18th century but behind the main square, Piazza Motta, there are some dating back to medieval times. These you will see if you make the climb up to the parish church of Santa Maria Assunta and to the SacroMonte.
There are small baroque palaces here and there with open galleries, pergolas and flower-filled balconies as well as hidden courtyards behind wrought-iron gates through which can be glimpsed lush vegetation. On the corner of the square stands the little Palazzo della Comunita which bears the coat of arms of the lake communities that took part in its construction in the 11th century.
Palazzo della Comunita
I have to confess that I didn’t make the trip to the top of the hill to visit the Santa Maria Assunta church. The pebble-stoned pavements were very difficult to walk on, but when I got halfway up and turned to look around, my old friend vertigo decided to pay me a visit and I was halted in my steps and had to be helped down again! Luckily, my friend and fellow-traveller, Solange Hando, was able to continue to the top and she has kindly allowed me to use some of the photographs she took from the top.
The Sacro Monte’s most important building is the Sanctuary which is made up of 20 chapels built between 1591 and 1757, differing in style but blending well into the natural surroundings. Originally it was intended to erect 30 chapels which would narrate the life of St. Francis of Assisi, but in the end only 20 were built. The interior of the chapels are decorated with frescoes and sculptures most of which are the work of the early 17th century Milanese painters, Giovanni Battista, Giovanni Mauro della Rovere, Giovanni d’Enrico, and the sculptor Christoforo Prestinari. In all, there are estimated to be 900 frescoes in the complex.
I was sorry not to have seen these frescoes and to have missed walking in the tranquillity of this remarkable site, but perhaps another year I may have more luck.
Meantime, here are some photographs of this beautiful town, and the food shops piled high with mushrooms of every type, truffles, olive oils, balsamic vinegars (I saw one priced at over £100), and breads of every shape and taste.
Lovely Italian Foodstuffs
Bloody Good Sandwich Shop
The Dragon slayed by San Giulio in the lobby of San Rocco Hotel
I went to Cremona last winter and two things from that trip I remember clearly: one was how cold it was, so cold that I had to buy a woollen hat from a street trader who charged me an outrageous €20 for a very inferior product: the second, but most important, was my meeting with violin maker, Stefano Conia, a master luthier, an intense young man who makes violins with passion, violins that are bought and played by some of the world’s finest musicians.
Cremona has been important in Italy’s cultural life since Roman times, located as it is on the banks of the Po River, a major junction for trade and commerce. The narrow streets of the city are rich in history, the red brick medieval towers and the Renaissance buildings shading the many statues of its famous sons, Antonio Stradivari and Claudio Monteverdi.
It’s not a walk around Lake Orta, but rather a walk around the small Isola San Giulio (St. Julius’s island) a short boat ride from the town of the same name on the lake. I have to confess it’s not up there with Jo’s Monday Walk, as it takes no more than ten minutes to walk around the entire island. That said, I spent forty minutes on the walk as I stopped often to listen to the sounds and to think about the words printed on plaques high up on the walls in phrases like “Listen to the silence” and “The Walls are in your Mind”.
Lake Orta is one of the prettiest lakes in Northern Italy, as far from the touristy Lake Como as it’s possible to be, and San Giulio is possibly the prettiest town on the lake. It is named after St. Giulio who is credited with expelling snakes and dragons from the island when he arrived in 390 AD (via a raft miraculously made from his cloak) in order that he could build his 100th church there. The Basilica one sees today is dedicated to him and was built on that same site in the ninth century.
Today as one approaches the island, one sees a cluster of buildings built right at the edge of the water, private residences now but once the homes of priests who lived on the island. Inside this ring of villas is the basilica and a Benedictine Abbey where 70 nuns dedicate themselves to silent contemplation and prayer. In a world without words, they go about their work of repairing ecclesiastical garments.
The entrance to the area is through a small arched doorway at the top of a set of stone steps and once through this one is faced with the Romanesque basilica which contains a feast of frescoes and sculpture.
Sometimes called The Way of Silence, other times The Walk of Meditation, it is a cobble-stoned alleyway that circles the island, enclosed by towering grey stone walls topped with green ferny plants that reach for the sky. From the walls project ornamental signs in four languages, one side of which instructs you to listen out for particular sounds while the other side lays down inspirational advice – ‘Listen to the water, the wind, your steps’.
My interest was in the walk, however, so I didn’t spend much time in the church but hurried outside to the cool path that curved around the island, shaded by the buildings on one side and the outer wall of the monastery grounds on the other. There were visitors aplenty on the walk, most observing silence, but there were pockets of noise from one or two groups who didn’t keep to the spirit of the place. There was no discernible movement behind the windows overlooking the path so no doubt the nuns are used to a certain amount of noise.
I completed the loop in about 20 minutes by meandering rather slowly and absorbing the ambience. There are no benches or seats along the way on which to rest which seems a pity, not because I felt tired, but because I felt it would have added to the experience to be able to sit and meditate for a few minutes in these very special surroundings.
Having reached the end, I turned and walked back along the “Way of Meditation” in order to read the words from the other side of the plaques: then I exited through the arched door to board the boat that would take me back to the town of San Giulio for a much-needed café e gelato!
Before I left the island I sat on a boulder overlooking the sea and listened to the silence, a silence only slightly disturbed by the lapping of the waves, the wind sighing in the trees and in the distance, the phut-phut of a motor-boat. I tried to imagine what it would be like to sit here as dawn broke over the lake and the mist rose from the shoreline opposite. The nuns sing Matins every day at 4.30 and in my mind I heard the sound of music drifting from the Abbey as day broke, and I promised myself that I would return one day to experience this moment.
There are a few rooms available and the Abbey welcomes visitors seeking a retreat from the world.
The round-trip fare is 5.50 Euros and the boats shuttle across the bay all day.
Lake Como has always been a fashionable resort but never so much as now when its permanent residents include George Clooney and his wife, Amal Alamuddin Clooney. Before this, the most famous residents were probably, Pliney the Elder and Pliney the Younger. And the Italian Lakes, of which Como is but one, offers visitors some of the most beautiful scenery in Italy.
I can see why the Clooneys chose to make Como their home. Apart from the beauty of its setting – green hills running down to the blue waters of the villa-rimmed lake, just yards from the historic centre, it has the charm of a small town while actually being a large city, a city that has easy access to mountain walks, ski-slopes and plateau parks. It has excellent transport connections (30 minutes to Milan by train), just a few miles from the Swiss border, and ferries and buses service the lake front.
Because of its lake, it is often overlooked that Como is actually a walled city and around which can be found a huge daily market selling everything from leather bags to lentils.
As in any large Italian town, the most important sight is the Duomo, an imposing cathedral built over a period of several centuries, from 1396 through to 1740, Although the façade dates from the 15th century and the dome was designed in the 18th century, the main influences are chiefly Renaissance and Gothic.
Having seen the Duomo – and it is worth seeing – there are many more churches, museums and architectural gems to check out, too many to list all here, but I would especially recommend the Boletto, the unusual striped-marble building which stands next to the Duomo and which is Como’s 13th century town hall, the 10th century Basilica di San Fedele and the Porta Vittoria, the tall stone gateway defending the old town walls.
Readers of Battery Connections (marketed by publisher Don Cleary) should head for The Tempio Voltiano where they can spend many happy hours browsing the exhibits. This unusual Museum is dedicated to Alessandro Volta, after whom the volt was named, and contains much of his working equipment – a truly unique place.
Como is known for its grand buildings, like 18th-century Villa Olmo, Villa del Grumello, and
Villa Sucota on the waterfront and, of course, the long-established, elegant resort of Bellagio, the small village between the two southern branches of Lake Como with a population of only 200. It’s an excellent place to spend a relaxing day, with gardens, lovely views, upmarket boutiques, lots of restaurants and bars. But be warned, it is probably the most expensive spot along the lakes!
But sight-seeing can be hard on the feet and that’s where the boat trip comes in. The regular service of Navigazione Lago di Como steamboat company will take you around the lake, with stop-offs at Cernobbio, Moltrasio, Torno and Blevio. Cernobbio is a charming tourist resort on the shores of the lake and along its banks, there are some beautiful villas, including Villa d’Este and Villa Erba, Villa Bernasconi and Villa Pizzo. The two to see are Villa Erba and Villa d’Este, the former an architectural gem built at the end of the nineteenth century and today important as an exhibition centre, the latter now the famous luxury hotel of world renown.
But my favourite is always to head for the mountains where possible, and all along the lakes, this is very possible. In Como, the funicular railway that opened in 1894, is in Piazza De Gasperi and you can’t miss it. It is a red, half-timbered house with carved woodwork trimmings: once through the gate, you are faced with a platform with one of the steepest inclines I’ve ever seen.
The cable-car is listed as ‘unmanned’ but fear not, this just means that the operator doesn’t actually ride on the car but is still in control over the external engine that drives it. The Funicular ascends through a tunnel that gives way to an open line above ground. Halfway up you meet an identical car coming down.
The Liberty-style houses on top of the hill, 750 metres above Como, are mainly summer homes for wealthy families fleeing from the heat of north Italian cities. During the winter months, when a thick carpet of snow covers the mountains, there are few permanent residents. There is a restaurant, a café, and a souvenir shop but you won’t have come here to shop but to take in the views which are stunning. On a clear day you can see the lake, the city of Como and the outline of its historic centre, the antique Roman castrum, neighbouring towns Tavernola and Cernobbio, the Alps and the Brianza plain. In the mosaic of my photographs taken from 750 metres above the lake, (below) you can see the Duomo in the middle of the town, its copper copula now verdegrised, glinting in the sunlight.
Above mosaic of pictures taken from the viewpoint at Brunate.
Once you’ve admired the views and stocked up with water, there are quite a few hiking trails around Brunate. A popular one is a 30-minute walk to the Volta Lighthouse, and the trails are well sigh-posted.
On the return journey, you will find most people crowding the front cabins to take selfies as they make the steep descent. I think it’s better not to fight for space and just to enjoy the trip and the magnificent views.
And at the end of the day, I decided this was the most enjoyable thing I had done in Como – and that included the two ice-creams I’d had!